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Published: May 3, 2022

The Big Picture: geopolitical trends driving humanitarian security challenges (Part 1)

By: Hugo Slim

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The risk of big warfare, the return to a multipolar world and rising authoritarianism can pose challenges for humanitarian operations. In this blog, based on Hugo Slim’s keynote speech at the 2021 HNPW session: ‘SRM in the Changing Global and Humanitarian Context’, he explores the geopolitical trends driving the humanitarian security challenges of today and tomorrow.

When we’re speaking about humanitarian security risk management, we’re talking about keeping people safe when they’re engaged in humanitarian action around the world. It’s important, therefore, to start by remembering that in 2019, 125 humanitarian workers were killed. 404 were directly affected by security incidents. We’re talking about people who are the victims of shooting, of bombing. We’re talking about people who are kidnapped. 94% of those people are national, not international humanitarians. Many more people experience these kinds of events, different kinds of assaults, threats, but don’t report them.

I’ve had a very safe humanitarian life. A lot of it spent in libraries, at universities, which are not notoriously dangerous. So, I’m not best placed to speak, but I’ll try and make some general points. I’ve had quite a long humanitarian life, probably because it’s been largely spent in libraries.

When I began working in war zones in 1985, security was not a big priority issue. If we were briefed at all, we tended to receive an oral briefing: ‘try not to do this, don’t do that, don’t go there and shut the door’. It was a very different scene, back then. But it really began to get serious in the 90s, in Somalia, and in the Bosnian war.

I remember the first manuals emerging sort of 2000, 2001. Gradually, in that period, we saw the professionalisation of security, and today it’s a hugely professionalised sector with many dedicated specialists, and a lot of investment of time, brain power and money going into security. And I think that’s how it should be.

I’m going to talk about the geopolitics of security today. I want to raise three issues; the reappearance of great powers, the risk of big war, and the rise of authoritarianism and the increasing rise of armed violence, political conflict.

The return to a multipolar world

Starting with great powers, one of the big changes in the context is that we are back in a multipolar world. After that 20, 30 year period of one global superpower and living under US hegemony, we now have a more 19th century, early 20th century, traditional, human political world of empires, of big powers. There is China, Russia, the US, Europe, India, big powers, and we have regional powers in play as well. The landscape has changed. And each of those powers has its own sphere of influence. Where you work, and if you can work, will depend on whether you can exist within the sphere of influence of one of those great powers.

The risk of big warfare

The second issue I want to raise is big war. At the moment and over the last 10, 20 years, agencies are mostly working in contexts seeing militarily small wars, counterinsurgency, insurgency, often asymmetric warfare, one part usually with a Western or Russian component of some kind, which has more technological, air power kit than the other side. But global militaries today are preparing for big war, peer- to- peer warfare, as they call it, near peer warfare. If you read the military doctrines of the US, of NATO, of Europe, of China, Russia, you’ll see the way that they see the threats now, and the big risks of fighting each other. If you’re largely operating in contexts around West Africa, perhaps in Myanmar, and the Middle East at the moment, great powers’ security thinking is focussed much more around the trigger points in Ukraine, Taiwan, the Indian-Chinese border. But if big war arrives in the next 5, 10, 20 years, you will be operating in a massively different context. It will see huge casualties, civilian and military, and a very different environment from the one you’re in now.

However, at the moment, all great powers are preferring to keep war small. They are determined, for now, to avoid fighting each other. Instead, they’re preferring to operate sub-threshold warfare. They’re preferring to threaten, provoke and undermine each other, under the threshold of tipping into big war. That’s hybrid warfare which seeks to destabilise, gradually encroach, to test an enemy. So, the great powers are trying to hold Yemen, if you’re the West, you’ve taken Crimea, if you’re Russia, you’ve taken back Hong Kong, if you’re China, and you’ve taken and held Syria if you’re Russia. It’s that kind of sub-threshold warfare that is in the mind of the great powers, trying to avoid big wars, but meanwhile getting ready for big wars.

The rise of authoritarianism

The next trend to look at is rising authoritarianism around the world, and therefore the regrouping of democracy. Authoritarianism has grown and assumed super fire status in China, which has a particular form of democracy, but not a Western liberal democracy. We have also seen this trend in Russia, India and Brazil recently as well. In particular, in African countries like Uganda and Rwanda, we’re seeing a rise of authoritarianism.

Democracies are now trying to regroup, realising they are potentially the minority. We’re seeing a security agenda emerging around the group, which is getting more and more defensive of democracies. Of course, many areas, Myanmar, Hong Kong and others will emerge over the next few years. We will see authoritarian government powers with very restless, younger, democratically aspiring youth demographics. This will create extraordinary tensions within those societies; conflicts of dissent and resistance, such as the one we see the Myanmar people trying to achieve. So that will be an increasing context: the democracy-authoritarianism struggle.

Lastly, in many places, which governments, the ICRC or others are reluctant to describe as places with armed conflict, very often people are living in warlike situations, because of armed violence and political violence. You can see that in Central America, large parts of Nigeria, Pakistan, and many other places. In those places, and in those dissenting democracy-authoritarian struggles, mass protests will potentially form part of the security environment and humanitarian response environment.

This year, between 2nd and 20th May, GISF will again lead on the Area of Common Concern ‘Integrating Security Risk Management Across Humanitarian Action’ at HNPW, co-hosting several virtual and face-to-face sessions in partnership with different actors such as the UN, ICRC, CBM, Raleigh International, as well as independent consultants. To join our sessions and discuss how to keep aid workers safe and improve communication and coordination in light of these current challenges, visit our event page here! 


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